The Unusual Occupation of the Leech Collectors or Leech Gatherers

One unusual and interesting occupation of in the 1700 and 1800s was performed by leech collectors or leech gatherers who obtained leeches for medicinal purposes. Leeches were used in bloodletting and were not particularly easy for physicians to obtain, which in part was why leech collectors gathered them. Moreover, both France and England imported millions of leeches for bloodletting during the early 1800s.

Mouthpart and sucker of a leech. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Doctors placed leeches everywhere on a patient ranging from the anus to the mucous membranes. In the United States physician Benjamin Rush, who also happened to be one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, was a proponent of the practice. He thought arteries were key to curing diseases and believed the “excited” nervous state of life had two forms: healthy and morbid. So, when a patient was in the morbid state, relief could only be found by bloodletting as Rush claimed that would restore balance to the body.

Painting of Benjamin Rush by Charles Wilson Peale, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Doctors attached leeches externally and internally. When attached externally they usually fell off on their own once they were satiated with blood. However, to reach that point, it might take twenty minutes to a few hours. When leeches were attached internally, medical intervention was required for their removal. This was accomplished by a doctor using a fingernail or some sort of flat, blunt object that could break the seal of a sucking leech. Generally, nothing else (such as salt or vinegar) was applied to loosen the leech because there was always a danger that the leech would regurgitate its stomach contents into a wound, which could then become infected.

There was also at least one story about a leech causing a problem after it burrowed itself into the thigh of a young girl in 1835. The doctor noted that he had been called to help the girl whose “thigh was tense, red, and shining, enlarged to nearly twice its natural size, and extremely painful.”[1] He could find nothing wrong but finally made an incision and discovered clots of blood and pus, which he drained and emptied into a bowl.

“On emptying the matter from the bowl on a clean flag outside the door, the girl’s mother was surprised to find among it a leech, coiled up, quite alive, and moving actively. … On inquiring minutely into the history of the case, he [the doctor] found that some days before she first complained of the limb, she had been gathering water-cresses in a ditch, and had felt hurt in or about the ankle of the inflamed limb, but did not pay much attention to it at the time. On examining the ankle, he found a triangular cicatrix, such as that which might be produced by a leech-bite. The fact would seem to prove that such animals can enter, burrow in, and preserve their vitality in the soft part of the human body.”[2]

Some people claimed the job of collecting leeches was a profitable one, and, in fact, one newspaper reported a country “leech merchant is always looked upon as a substantial man,”[3] but other people argued they were poorly paid. Moreover, because leeches were used everywhere and for every type of medical issue, physicians demanded them throughout the year, but leech gatherers could not provide them year-round because they were only available at certain times during the year; during the cold months, leeches became inactive and it was difficult if not impossible to gather them.

Leech collectors were also aware that there were different types of leeches. One 1845 newspaper stated that they were two types: “the ‘hirudo offinalis,’ the leech used in surgery; and the ‘hirudo enermis,’ or common horse leech,”[4] but there was also the hirudo medicinalis used in clinical bloodletting that had been performed since ancient Grecian times. Physicians used these leeches to restore balance if there was an excess of blood. In fact, Pliny the Elder reported in his Natural History that the horse leech could drive elephants mad by climbing up inside their trunks to drink blood, and he also noted that leeches were used in ancient Rome for gout and that patients sometimes became addicted to the treatment.

Hirudo medicinalis in the process of sucking blood. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the methods used to collect leeches was to attract them to the legs of animals, such as old horses. However, more frequently leech gatherers collected them on their own legs, which also resulted in them sometimes suffering infections from the wounds. There were also another negative effect of being a leech collector. When a leech repeatedly bit someone, that person might suffer from dangerous blood loss because even if the leech did not suck for long, it could leave a wound that sometimes bled for hours after its removal.

One nineteenth-century newspaper reported that when leech collectors worked, they needed to be “slaves” to their profession. That was partly because when the leech was in season gatherers were busy. It was also hard work to gather them from the bogs, marshes, or quagmires where they were easily found. One newspaper noted that instead of threshing straw the leech catcher was busy threshing weeds as he searched for the blood-sucking leech. One description of how the collector gathered the leech was provided in 1845:

“The leetch-catcher is to be observed, solitary and alone, in the midst of a bog situated on some wild heath or common, remote from the habitations of man, presenting at first sight to a stranger a very unique and grotesque appearance. Stripped nearly naked, you behold him with a flail in his hand, which he brandishes around him, striking the water in the bog with great violence, to disturb the objects he is in search of. By his side is suspended a canvas bag, which is drawn up at the top.”[5]

Supposedly during the search for the leeches, the leech collector had to be wary. It was best if every five minutes or so, the gatherer stopped beating the morass and checked his or her own bare legs to see if any leeches had adhered to them. It was not unusual to find them, which were then removed and thrust into the canvas bag before the person searched for more leeches. Reportedly, a successful day’s work was gathering 500 leeches.

Another type of leech collector, referred to as a leech fisher, was found in France and described in 1834 in the following manner:

“If ever you pass through La Brenne, you will see a man, pale, and straight-haired, with a woollen cap on his head, and his legs and arms naked; he walks along the borders of a marsh, among the spots left dry by the surrounding waters, but particularly wherever the vegetation seems to preserve the sub adjacent soil undisturbed; this man is a leech fisher. … If you observe him every now and then raising his legs, and examining them one after the other, you might suppose him a fool; but he is an intelligent leech fisher. The leeches attach themselves to his legs and feet as he moves among their haunts; he feels their presence from their bite, and gathers them as they cluster about the roots of the bull rushes and sea weeds, or beneath the stones covered with green and gluey moss. … In a favourable season it is possible, in the course of three or four hours, to stow 10 or 12 dozen of them in a little bag which the gatherer carries over his shoulder. Sometimes you will see the leech-fisher armed with a kind of spear or harpoon; with this he deposits pieces of decayed animal matter in places frequented by the leeches; they soon gather round the prey, and are presently themselves gathered into a little vessel half-full of water. … In the summer, the leech retires into deeper water; and the fishers have then to strip themselves naked, and walk immersed up to the chin. Some of them have little rafts to go upon; these rafts are made of twigs and rushes, and it is no easy matter to propel them among the weeds and aquatic plants. At this season, too, the supply in the pools is scanty; the fisher can only take the few that swim within his reach … The leach gatherer is constantly more or less in water, breathing fog and mist and fetid odours from the marsh; he is often attacked with ague, catarrhs, and rheumatism. … One of the traders — what with his own fishing and that of children, and what with his acquisitions from the carriers, who sell quantities second hand, was enabled to board up 17,500 leeches in the course of a few months; … The trader buys his leeches pele mele, big and little, green and black — all the same; but he afterwards sorts them for the market. Those are generally account the best which are of a green ground, with yellow stripes along the body.”[6]

Titled, “The leeches of the day before and the leeches of tomorrow.” Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Edward Peacock recalled seeing leech collectors when he was young on the marshy lands of Trent, between Gainsborough and Humber. He claimed that they wandered slowly through the water with their legs and feet bare and while doing so they carried a “peeled willow wand.” They used the wand to disturb the vegetation, which then roused the leeches and caused them to cling not only to the wand but also to a gatherer’s bare legs.

The great Romantic poet William Wordsworth also once met a leech gatherer. The meeting probably happened on 26 September 1800 when he was out for a walk with his sister Dorothy Wordsworth. Dorothy later wrote about the encounter, which was then repeated in a book about Wordsworth.

“Not far from Dove Cottage the brother and sister met ‘an old man almost double,’ carrying a bundle; he wore an apron and nightcap; ‘his face was interesting; he had dark eyes and a long nose.’ The man was of Scotch parents, and he had been in the army; his wife and nine of the children were dead. ‘His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches were scarce, and he had not strength for it. He lived by begging, and was making his way to Carlisle where he should buy a few godly books to sell.’”[7]

William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wordsworth’s meeting with the leech gatherer was forgotten until about May 1802 when he was despondent and walking on Barton Fell near Ullswater. It was during his walk that he remembered the leech gatherer and then wrote the poem, Resolution and Independence. Stanza’s VIII to XX discuss the leech catcher:

  • “Besides a pool bare to the eye of heaven
  • I saw a Man before me unawares:
  • At length, himself unsettling, he the pond
  • Stirred with his staff, and fixedly did look
  • Upon the muddy water, which he conned,
  • And now a stranger’s privilege I took;
  • ‘What occupation do you there pursue?
  • This is a lonesome place for one like you.’
  • Ere he replied, a flash of mild surprise
  • Broke from the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes.
  • He told, that to these waters he had come
  • To gather leeches, being old and poor:
  • Employment hazardous and wearisome!
  • And he had many hardships to endure:
  • From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
  • Housing, with God’s good help, by choice or chance;
  • And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.
  • My question eagerly did I renew,
  • ‘How is it that you live, and what is it you do?’
  • He with a smile did then his words repeat;
  • And said that, gathering leeches, far and wide
  • He travelled; stirring thus about his feet
  • The waters of the pools where they abide.
  • ‘Once I could meet with them on every side;
  • But they have dwindled long by slow decay;
  • Yet still I persevere, and find them where I may.’
  • ‘God,’ said I, ‘be my help and stay secure;
  • I’ll think of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor!’”[8]

William Wordsworth in 1798. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Artist George Walker also provided a description of leech collectors in his book The Costume of Yorkshire that was published by Robinson & Son in Leeds on 1 April 1814. The book contained 41 hand drawn and colored aquatints, and Walker’s Scottish “leechfinders” were shown wading into freezing waters to gather leeches from the Yorkshire. Walker also stated:

“Leeches are now so much in demand that they are comparatively scare, though still found in many parts of Yorkshire. The women who collect them are principally from Scotland, and although by no means the fairest of their sex, or possessing any claims to blue stocking celebrity, are not withstanding by no means disagreeable subjects for the pencil. Their dress has some peculiarity in it, and they promenade bare legged, with considerable picturesque effect, in the pools of water frequented by leeches. These little blood suckers attach themselves to the feet and legs, and are from thence transferred by the fair fingers of the lady to a small barrel or keg of water, suspended at her waist.”[9]

George Walker’s leechfinders. Public domain.

Leech gathering became a sizeable industry by the mid-1800s because the demand for leeches was profitable enough to result in them being farmed. Furthermore, in the United Kingdom, leech gathering was particularly popular in the Lake District and Somerset Levels because of the availability of the leeches. Millions were also exported from German to America annually and French imports of hirudo medicinalis in 1833 was said to be 42 million. Because of the staggering demand and over gathering of leeches, it was no wonder that by the 1850s, they were difficult to find in Britain and other parts of Europe. However, although costly, leeches could still be imported from Central Asia.

By the 1870s, bloodletting lost much of its cachet with physicians and doctors. The medical community realized that bloodletting and leeches were worthless in curing illness and disease. Nonetheless, bloodletting and the use of leeches remained popular with patients and was so popular that many patients demanded their doctors leech them and had to be convinced that using them

would do them no good.

One mention about the end of leeches on medical shelves appeared in 1908 and came from someone with the initials W.C.B. who wrote:

“The large white jars bearing the word ‘Leeches,’ generally in gilt letters on a blue ground, which were once to be seen on every druggist’s counter, are now to be found only among the lumber of second-hand shops. More than fifty years ago I was often leeched – inside the nostrils, on the inside of the lower lip, on the chest, and on the side, sometimes by four at a time.”[10]

Pharmacy leech jar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite the decline in leeches for medicinal reasons, by the turn of the 20th century hirudo medicinalis had disappeared from most of Europe and was declared extinct in the British Isles. Fortunately, they were rediscovered in areas of Great Britain in 1970, but the leech collector was not so lucky to survive. Jobs for leech gatherers and collectors died out once doctors stopped using them so that no longer could they be found as Wordsworth once said, “on the Lonely moor!”

References:

  • [1] Royal Cornwall Gazette, “A Leech Burrowing in the Human Thigh,” September 25, 1835, p. 4.
  • [2] Royal Cornwall Gazette, p. 4.
  • [3] Dublin Weekly Register, “A Column for the Curious,” April 19, 1845, p. 3.
  • [4] Dublin Weekly Register, p. 3.
  • [5] Dublin Weekly Register, p. 3.
  • [6] The Leech Fishery The Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, January 25, 1834, p. 1.
  • [7] W. Wordsworth and E. Dowden, Poems (Boston: Ginn, 1898), p. 413.
  • [8] Wordsworth, William (2018): Resolution and Independence. Poetry Foundation. Available online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45545/resolution-and-independence, checked on 11/28/2018.
  • [9] W. White, Notes and Queries (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), p. 291.
  • [10] Ibid.

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